1p Book Review: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov

sebastian knight penguin 1971

Nabokov’s ‘page-turner of exceptional literary quality’ is very like a masterpiece, argues Nige…

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (published 1941) was the first novel Nabokov wrote in English. My copy is a Penguin reprint dating from 1971 – that handsome set with the Nabokov signature aslant the cover – and it would be around that date that I first read it. If I’ve read it again since, it would have been at least 20 years ago, so I was glad to find how much of The Real Life I remembered – scenes, phrases, images, the overall shape…

It’s a quite extraordinary book, this one, and seems all the more so on rereading. Ostensibly an unnamed narrator’s (or rather named only as V) account of the life and works of his adored half-brother, the distinguished Russian-born novelist Sebastian Knight, The Real Life soon has the alert reader questioning what exactly is going on here.

Are V and SK ‘really’ separate entities, or is one the creation of the other – and if so, which way round? Of course both are the creations of VN and have their being in the novel The Real Life, which itself contains the novels of SK, an abysmally bad biography of SK by one Goodman, and (by way of SK’s autobiographical Lost Property) the ghostly presence of VN’s yet to be written Speak, Memory – not to mention the later novels The Real Life prefigures, notably Pale Fire and Transparent Things.

All of which makes The Real Life sound like some tiresome postmodernist exercise in metametafiction – but it is no such thing. Nabokov’s grace, wit and style, working through the medium of the somewhat plodding V and the brilliant SK, keep the narrative shimmering with life.

As the story proceeds – in a series of Knight’s moves, naturally (the novel is full of chess allusions) – it becomes a thoroughly enjoyable page-turner, albeit a page-turner of exceptional literary quality.

I had a lurking doubt that this reread might prove a disappointment – but in the event I was impressed anew by what now seems to me very like a masterpiece.

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J G Ballard and The Lost Leonardo

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The Lost Leonardo, which appears in the short story collection The Terminal Beach (available to buy for 1p) is Seamus Sweeney’s favourite J G Ballard story, despite (or perhaps because of) its being the most unBallardian. Here he explains why…

Clive James did not care much for Jean Paul Sartre, although as a television critic for The Observer in 1981 he still felt constrained to making ritual genuflections in the direction of the great existentialist’s genius. Much of James’ review of a TV adaptation of Sartre’s play Kean starring Anthony Hopkins, was taken up with how hammy and overwrought the whole enterprise was. And yet, James was drawn to something quite unSartrelike in Kean.  Commenting on one particular sequence, he writes:

 It was clumsy enough dramatically. But the sense of adventure was in it. The would-be brisk exchanges and the long winded speeches were energised alike by the central boldness of the conception. The artist making his own way according to his own rules – years ago, when his imagination was young, Sartre lit up at the idea. It just goes to show that even genius can sometimes be touched by talent.

JG Ballard is one of those writers whose surname has become an adjective, “Ballardian”, which has received official lexicographic recognition. The Collins Dictionary defines it thus:

 Adj.  (1) of James Graham Ballard (1930–2009), the British novelist, or his works. (2)  resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels and stories, esp dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes, and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental development

I have always found Ballard’s novels somewhat drawn out, whereas in his stories the various themes which I suppose now officially congregate as being “Ballardian” are more satisfyingly explored. The exception among the novels is Hello America, which while set in a post apocalyptic America rediscovered by Europeans, has a certain adventurous drive reminiscent of nothing so much as H Rider Haggard (not a usual reference point for Ballard criticism). Ballard’s short stories generally mine the “Ballardian” tropes more engagingly than the novels, but my favourite among them could hardly be said to meet the Collins definition of the term.

The Lost Leonardo,  in part reads like a pastiche of a certain kind of detective story, and there is something reminiscent of G K Chesterton’s Father Brown stories (again, not usually invoked as a precursor of Ballard) in the central conceit. Yet, as with “Hello America”, the effectiveness of the story rests with the lack of self-consciousness that Ballard brings to it. The “central boldness of the conception” helps give The Lost Leonardo its energy and drive. It is unusual too, in being the only Ballard story (as far as I know) which depends for its effect on invoking divinity. The story begins in media res with a memorably attention-grabbing opening line:

The disappearance – or, to put it less euphemistically, the theft of the Crucifixion by Leonardo da Vinci from the Museum of the Louvre in Paris, discovered on the morning of April 19, 1965, caused a scandal of unprecedented proportions.

The story is narrated by Charles, a director of the auctioneers Northeby’s (a rather obvious spin on Sotheby’s) who travels to Paris to stay with his friend Georg de Stael, director of Galleries Normande. Ostensibly in Paris for a conference, the enormity of the theft energises Charles:

whenever a large stone is thrown into the turbid waters of international art, people such as myself and Georg de Stael immediately take up our positions on the bank, watching for any ripple or malodorous bubble … All the darker fish would now be swimming frantically for cover, and a salutary blow had been struck at the official establishment of senior museum curators and directors.

Of course, The Crucifixion is a fictional painting, though its status is obviously a nod to the Mona Lisa (“Despite the two million reproductions of the painting sold each year, not to mention the countless pastiches and inferior imitations, the subject matter of the painting still retained its majestic power”). Charles and Georg are naturally fascinated with the inexplicable crime. However there are no promising leads, no art world gossip, no stirrings in the demi monde. Months go by, and they meet again. George suggests an incredible solution to not only the theft of the Leonardo, but a host of other incidents involving crucifixion scenes; that a mysterious figure who features in a range of these paintings from centuries of art history has been altered after the paintings disappear and reappear almost untouched. This figure is none other than Ahasuerus. After some time, with a sense of disbelief, Charles realises what Georg is actually suggesting, in an exchange  which never fails to make the hairs on the back of my neck prick up.

Suddenly I pivoted on my heel. ‘Confound it, Georg, do you realise that if this incredible idea of yours is true this man must have spoken to Leonardo? To Michelangelo, and Titian and Rembrandt?”

Georg nodded. ‘And someone else too,’ he added pensively.

The rest of the story is an entertaining adventure pursuing this idea to its logical conclusion, and with a satisfyingly open ending.

The Lost Leonardo is a retelling of the story of Ahareseus, the Wandering Jew. The literature of the Wandering Jew theme is surveyed by Martin Gardner is his essay The Wandering Jew and the Second Coming. For Gardner, the Wandering Jew was one of the more ingenious means whereby Christians explained away a statement of Jesus Christ that, taken literally, seemed to predict the New Jerusalem within the lifetime of His listeners. Matthew 16, 27-8 read as follows (Authorised Version):

For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. Verily I say unto you, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.

Gardner is in no doubt that this was meant absolutely literally that Christ was telling his audience that some of them would see His Second Coming (Gardner ignores the debates among commentators about  what exactly was meant; these verses precede the account of the Transfiguration) . As the generation whose lives overlapped with Christ died, it became harder and harder to reconcile these words with the manifest fact that the Second Coming had not occurred. The Catholic Church, and most denominations, quietly put the date of the Apocalypse outside the range of earthly timekeeping; some groups decided either that the Second Coming was imminent (a faith undimmed by various proposed dates for the end of the world coming and going without incident) or, more imaginatively, that it had already happened. Ahasuerus was created, according to Gardner, to resolve the paradox. Christ had not yet returned, because one who was alive during His life still lived. On that walk to Calvary, Jesus responded to one of the crowd taunting him – Ahasuerus saying “go quicker”, and Christ replying “I go, but thou shalt wait until I return”. These words condemned Ahasuerus to the wandering life of his sobriquet.

The tale of Ahareseus is an apocraphyal one, not mentioned in any of the synoptic gospels. And the Christ it invokes – condemning Ahareseus with a one-liner – is not exactly that of the Beatitudes, or indeed “forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

In The Lost Leonardo, the Ahasuerus fable, tinged as it is with a Christian background if not quite scriptural or doctrinal authority, is used relatively unironically. Allusions to the da Vinci painting that supremely deserves the oft-abused designation of  “iconic”, the Mona Lisa, occur in some of Ballard’s short stories. Madama Gioconda of The Sound-Sweep is another reference to Mona Lisa,  this emblem of the uneasy mid-twentieth century marriage of high and mass culture; an unequal struggle in which high culture has generally been on  the retreat

It’s a tension alluded to in The Lost Leonardo.  Georg and Charles are shocked not only by the initial theft of The Crucifixion, but that the painting that was displayed and stolen was genuine; it is implied that galleries routinely exhibit forgeries, keeping the real works more securely. Georg comments: “I hoped that this catastrophe might induce the authorities to make a clean breast of some of their so-called treasures, in attempt, as it were, to dispel some of the magic surrounding the Leonardo. But they are in a complete fuddle.” Illusion and reality, the demands of the new mass experience of art; these themes are touched on in the story.

Such attempts at theorising are beside the point.  The Lost Leonardo is an adventure story, a jeu d’espirit, a wonderfully implausible concoction.  Georg’s “And someone else too” is, for me, one of the great lines of speculative fiction, evoking with great concision a dizzying world of possibilities. If we read as Borges recommended we do, hedonistically, then this is a moment of pure literary pleasure. It is a tribute to Ballard’s powers that this least “Ballardian” of stories is a fresh and original twist on the somewhat hoary Wandering Jew concept.

Seamus Sweeney is a doctor and writer from Dublin who lives in County Tipperary. His writing has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The Lancet, The Guardian, The Spectator and other publications. He won the 2010 Molly Keane Writing Prize.

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1p Book Review: The Old Forest and Other Stories by Peter Taylor

Peter_Taylor_at_Kenyon_1947

Nige discovers the extraordinary short stories of ‘the American Chekhov’…

I must admit I had never heard of the American short story writer Peter Taylor until, last Christmas, Mrs N gave me a volume of his – The Old Forest and Other Stories (available for a penny, and indeed a cent on Amazon) – having seen a reference to Taylor somewhere and decided that he might be ‘the kind of thing I like’.

Reader, he is – Taylor is  amazingly good and I’ve been hugely enjoying this selection, wondering why he isn’t better known (at least over here – I’ve seen him described in his own land as ‘the American Chekhov’). It may be something to do with his being a Southerner who sets his stories in the South in the Thirties and Forties, a world poised between the old ways and the modern world, where use of what we must now call ‘the n word’ (and even the related ‘d word’) is standard. (I imagine this alone would debar his work from today’s syllabus.)

But damn, he is good. His stories are generally light on plot, strong on characterisation, scene-setting, telling detail. They work at an unforced pace and by the subtlest of means to open out from some small incident or a portrait of one character into a wholly convincing, engrossing picture of a time and a place and a group of people living their lives in it.

The title story, for instance – almost long enough to be a novella – revolves around a young woman passenger in a car jumping out after it’s involved in an accident, and disappearing into the forest. The young man she was travelling with is engaged to another young woman, with a higher position in society. The story progresses by following through the implications and ramifications of this incident, tracing the shock waves, in tandem with the search for the missing woman. The incident itself is the catalyst for the process of revelation and shifting relationships that forms the body and substance of the story. By the end, you feel you fully know this world and these people – and that they know themselves rather better than they did before.

Other stories achieve extraordinary effects in a much smaller space – one, A Walled Garden, is a short but deeply chilling monologue. Some (The Gift of the Prodigal, Promise of Rain, Porte Cochere) portray father-son relationships, invariably from the father’s point of view. Family dynamics, often awkward and unstable, and the painful interdependence of masters/mistresses and servants (whites/blacks) are central to most of the stories. In one of them – the agonising A Long Fourth – race relations are openly discussed, but only because the discussion is at that point necessary to the story.

Taylor spells nothing out, makes no judgments, he is not present in his stories. They are extraordinary creations, and I’m sure I’ll soon be seeking out more, if I can find them…

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1p Book Review: How to Be an Alien by George Mikes

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Nige digs out a nearly-forgotten foreigner’s eye view of the British…

The Hungarian-born British writer George Mikes (15 February 1912 – 30 August 1987) is best known (if he is remembered at all) for his gently humorous foreigner’s-eye view of the English, How to Be an Alien.

First published in 1946, it went into innumerable printings (my copy is the 23rd impression, from March 1957). ‘This book,’ says Mikes on the dust-jacket flap,

is meant for those who see the funny side of life and to help those who can’t see it, but chiefly it is intended for xenophobes and anglophobes. The author, Mr Mikes (pronounced “me-cash”), has been a keen observer of the behaviour and misbehaviour of foreigners and natives in this country and is happy to give all and sundry the benefit of his research. Chapters on hypocrisy, language, sex, tea, the soul, the weather, rudeness and simple joys are just a few results of his vast investigations.

The chapter on Sex is the shortest:

Continental people have a sex life; the English have hot-water bottles.

Soul is something foreigners have and the English don’t need: ‘The English have no soul; they have the understatement instead.’ Mikes is very good on English understatement – a form of expression that is in retreat in today’s more emotionally incontinent times – but he acknowledges that

Overstatement, too, plays a considerable part in English social life. This takes mostly the form of someone remarking: “I say…” and then keeping silent for three days on end.

As a portrait of English life it is, of course, very much of its time; this is a lost England of stiff upper lips, scrupulous politeness and strong social codes. In a few places, though, it is strangely prescient, as when Mikes advises foreigners who wish to fit in to ‘start eating porridge for breakfast and allege that you like it.’ Nowadays everybody seems to eat porridge and claims to enjoy the experience.

The best thing about How to Be an Alien, though – as with so many other titles – is that ‘Nicolas Bentley drew the pictures’. This brilliant illustrator makes any book embellished by him well worth a look – and he was on top form with How to Be an Alien.

how-to-be-an-alien2

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1p Book Review: Bad Land by Jonathan Raban

bad land

Nige recommends Jonathan Raban’s account of the praire homesteaders…

Mixing history with reportage, travelogue, reconstruction and personal narrative, Jonathan Raban’s wonderful book Bad Land (available for 1p here) tells the story of the homesteaders who came to settle on the all but unpopulated prairies of Montana in the teens of the 20th century.

Encouraged by government incentives, the blandishments of the railway companies and the spurious science of ‘dry farming’, they came out in high hopes, and the weather gods initially smiled on their endeavours with a rare succession of rainy years. Lulled into a false sense of security, the homesteaders began to spend and borrow and expand – and then, in the Twenties, normal weather resumed, farming became all but impossible, homesteads were abandoned and the disillusioned settlers trekked west in search of work and water…

Raban tells the story through the histories of individual families, whose later members are his guides around the abandoned lands and into their still recent ancestral past (Raban’s book dates to 1996). He also focuses on such remarkable characters as the pioneering photographer Evelyn Cameron (a shame my paperback edition had no illustrations, but there’s plenty of Cameron’s work online). As he returns to the present, Raban also traces the ominous lines from the great ‘betrayal’ of the homesteaders to their ‘bad-blood descendants’, the paranoid survivalists, the militias and bombers.

Bad Land is an impressive feat of vivid and hugely readable storytelling, infused with affection and respect for the people whose story it is. Though himself irredeemably urban and liberal, Raban is clearly stirred and moved by the land and the people he encounters and by their extraordinary history. He does them proud.

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1p Book Review: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

Willa Cather
Nige recommends a lesser known novel by My Antonia author Willa Cather…

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather [available for a penny from Amazon] is an apparently slight novel of some 160 pages that achieves the kind of depth and makes the kind of impact you’d expect from something twice the length.

It’s the story of a beautiful and fascinating woman, married to a much older man – a retired railway pioneer – and living in a small town in Nebraska. She is first presented to us through the adoring eyes of a boy, Niel Herbert, who swiftly falls in love with her – and no wonder. Marian Forrester is deftly and vividly brought to life, with all her entrancing ways – but, as we soon discover, there are hidden depths to Mrs Forrester, there is much that we don’t know. She is as vulnerable as she is seductive, as weak as she is strong, as faithless as she is steadfast.  A Lost Lady delivers shock after shock beneath its apparently tranquil surface, not all of them related to its heroine.

As well as being the portrait of a lady, the novel is also a picture of changing times, as the old ways of the pioneering days, based on honour and trust and mutuality, die away in the face of ruthless amoral commercialism (embodied in the book by the aptly named ‘Poison’ Ivy, a memorably vile young man).  Marian Forrester seems to be herself a victim of this process after her husband dies, but this is a woman who never stays a victim for long.  Young Niel, who observes her through increasingly disapproving eyes as his idealism turns to priggishness, never has the true measure of her…

Willa Cather manages the story with quiet but exquisite skill, never missing a word, a fragment of dialogue, a gesture or look that might illuminate the action and reveal character. We don’t, happily, see everything through Niel Herbert’s eyes; other viewpoints are deployed, including the author’s own.

All of this is put to the single overriding purpose of giving us Marian Forrester in the round and as if alive. It succeeds brilliantly, and movingly. It is – like the portrait of the heroine in My Antonia – written with that rare quality among novelists: love.

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1p Book Review: One Day by David Nicholls

one_day

ZMKC is captivated by a romantic comedy which is also a ‘remorseless satire of the eighties and nineties’…

The action of One Day (available for 1p on Amazon) takes place over twenty years and follows the lives of two characters – Emma and Dexter. These two spend the night together at the very end of university but remain relatively chaste during the experience, thus setting up that acronymic situation that LA scriptwriters are apparently taught is vital to a TV show’s success – MUFT?, SMURF? – in which two people made for each other somehow keep not quite falling into each other’s arms.

It is evidence of what a good writer Nicholls is that he manages to persuade the reader – or this one anyway – that on that first night Emma and Dexter do control themselves. Even greater evidence of his skill is the fact that the novel does not, as so many do these days, (including some of Nicholls’s own earlier works), start off engaging and hilarious and then disappoint, but remains throughout its full 435 pages extremely funny, observant and utterly engrossing.

Moreover, although the book is to a large extent a remorseless satire of the eighties and nineties – (and, despite the absence of any pretension on his part to ‘great writer’ status, the portrait of his own society that Nicholls gives is every inch as masterful as Jonathan Franzen, for example, would like his various offerings to be) – and although one of the main characters is at times almost nightmarish in his self-absorption and self-destructiveness, astonishingly Nicholls never loses our sympathy for his two protagonists. This is largely because his characterisation is so good and his insight so acute, (his rendering of the dangers that the gifts of good looks and charm can pose to an individual struck me as particularly original and apposite in our superficial age).

In conclusion, I cannot recommend One Day highly enough. I do not remember the last time I was so captivated by a novel. My only criticism might be that my desire to keep reading was almost too intense; I found myself wishing I could get away from my friends and family in order to return to Dexter and Emma. The fact that, as well as being moving and full of romantic suspense, the book is also exceptionally funny only adds to its attractions. I have nothing more to say apart from: read this book.

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1p Book Review: Wait for Me! by Deborah Devonshire

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ZMKC recommends the often hilarious memoirs of Deborah, Duchess of Deveonshire and youngest of the notorious Mitford sisters…

Wait for Me!, the autobiography of Deborah Devonshire, is worth at least 1p for its first section alone. This part of the book – an account of the author’s childhood surrounded by a Wodehousian collection of relatives, most notably her father, (who it transpires was not only unintentionally hilarious but also, during WWI, quite incredibly brave), and hangers on, (including a governess who spent school hours teaching her charges how to gamble at cards), is so funny you cannot read it in a room with other people, because you are liable either to drive those around you completely crazy with your shouts of uncontrollable laughter or irritate them dreadfully by being unable to resist reading bits of the thing out loud.

Once the author leaves home and we see less of her father, who I still cannot quite believe worked for a time at The Lady, the laughs, although never entirely absent, do grow thinner. All the same, the book does not lose its charm or interest, as the sheer absurd hilarity of the author’s anecdotes about her family is replaced by well-described, often comic memories of life in the upper classes after the war – which, thanks to rationing, does not sound all that much more pleasant than life for any other section of society at the time:

Mr Thacker [the butcher] let me help him cut up the meat in the back room and get a few scraps for the dogs. Tongue was offal and therefore not rationed. ‘Any chance of a tongue?’ I would ask. ‘You’re thirty-sixth on the list,’ was always the answer … One day a wounded soldier repatriated from Italy brought home a lemon. Such a luxury had not been seen for a long time and it caused a minor sensation when he put it on the post office counter at Ashford-in-the-Water and charged tuppence a smell – proceeds to the Red Cross.

As time goes on the Duchess gets to know a number of famous people, including JFK and Hitler, Evelyn Waugh, Givenchy, Osbert Sitwell, Elizabeth Bowen, Nancy Astor – who she overheard saying, when “a dreary educationalist from the Midwest was droning on and on … Thats very interestin … but Im not interested- as well as many who are less well-known but equally intriguing, – the Howards, for instance, whose father ‘had a glass eye and used to surprise people by tapping it with a fork at meals’. She recounts amusing stories about all of them, and also devotes space to her famous sisters, about whom she is admirably loyal.

While two of those sisters, Nancy and Jessica, have already given us fairly vivid accounts of their father (about whom it is impossible ever to hear too much), in Wait for Me! we are also provided with a clearer picture of the Mitford girls’ mother, who, we discover, enjoyed belting out tunes on the piano from The Daily Express Community Song Book and once, in answer to the question of how old she was, replied ‘Nineteen…no, sorry, seventy-three’, a response anyone over the age of forty-five –or, indeed, nineteen – can probably sympathise with.

Given the fact that the Duchess endured some of life’s bitterest blows –the stillbirth and neo-natal death of several children – this book could easily have become a misery memoir. However, its author is made of sterner stuff. Describing situations where most of us would claim to be heartbroken, she restricts herself to the wonderfully understated phrase, ‘I minded terribly. Rather than pouring out her heart, she does her best to see the humour in most situations, as well as trying to give us a picture of the England in which she grew up – and the pre-chain store London in which she ‘came out’ (in the old-fashioned sense of that phrase):

A coat and skirt from Mr Nissen, tailor of Conduit Street –a major item, but one that lasted, cost 8½ guineas. We were never without Madame Rita’s hats. Our hairdresser, Phyllis Earle in Dover Street (reached by a number 9 bus, getting off at the Ritz), charged 3/6 for a wash and set. My shoes, which came from Dolcis in Oxford Street, were cheap and decent to look at but painful after a few nights of round and round the dance floor. Muv gave me some of her elbow length evening gloves made of doeskin, so gleaming white and smart they set off the dullest dress. They had to be cleaned each time they were worn and were posted to a firm in Scotland, so famous that ‘Pullars of Perth’ on the printed labels was enough of an address.

While even the talented Duchess cannot extract much entertainment from her involvement with a company called Tarmac, she has such a brilliant eye for the interesting or amusing detail that it is only in this episode – mercifully brief – that her writing slightly flags. She claims not have read a book in her life, but she certainly knows how to write a good one. Her tastes are occasionally surprising– she is a keen Elvis fan – but her character is charming and it is a pleasure to spend a few hundred pages reading the story of her life.

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1p Book Review: The Missing Will / A Dubious Codicil by Michael Wharton

Michael Wharton

Michael ‘Peter Simple’ Wharton’s The Missing Will and A Dubious Codicil can be bought for a penny in a single volume, but, as Brit writes, it’s very much an autobiography of two halves…

The Missing Will is a hoot, covering with deadpan wit Wharton’s childhood in 1920s Yorkshire, his remarkably indolent, drunken Oxford university career and his service in India with the Royal Artillery during World War II. The army chapters are the peak of the whole thing, reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy in their descriptions of the British military’s muddle-along administrative incompetence. As Wharton notes:

Another discovery was that life in the Army – at any rate as a Gunner – was hilariously funny. What could be funnier, to begin with, than being known as ‘1083777 Gunner Wharton MB’?

Wharton has a keen sense of the ridiculous, but other normal human sensibilities elude him. On leave from the army, he feels

a sense of something lacking. It was not that I was not glad to see my wife and child…glad to wander about the familiar lanes and woods and hills. But some meaning has gone out of them. All these things belonged to a phase of life which was now receding into the past beyond recall.

Thereafter – which means two-thirds of The Missing Will and the entirety of A Dubious Codicil, a span of some 50 years – Wharton carries this hollowed-out feeling everywhere, through his job at the BBC and then, for which he became famous, his long career as the Telegraph’s Peter Simple. This is far from a flattering self-portrait: the apparent callousness with which he seems to abandon his first family defies any sympathy. A Dubious Codicil covers the Peter Simple years, most of which Wharton spends drunk in the notorious Fleet Street boozer The King and Keys. There is much comedy here, beautifully delivered (the tales of bar-propping monsters like Philip Weston are especially ripe) but I found the book on the whole dispiriting. Wharton’s relentless misanthropy (stemming from fear of being thought a fraud, mostly) becomes increasingly hard to swallow, and though he skewers the smug follies of liberalism well and often, his thinly disguised anti-Semitism is particularly tiresome (and particularly odd, considering his German-Jewish parentage and birth name of Nathan).

But more than that, reading A Dubious Codicil had the effect of reinforcing a troubling sense I sometimes have that Britain itself peaked in the years 1939 to 1945, when the nation summoned all that was good about itself and threw it at the destruction of Nazi Germany. The British soul was at its zenith when everyone had clipped accents and sex was furtive and all men wore hats and leapt onto steam locomotives as they pulled out of the station (before alighting at Boxhill and Westhumble) and thin-moustached officers in tropical outposts sweated gin-and-tonic and quoted Latin proverbs; and everything that’s happened since, from the welfare state to The X Factor to the Guardian website, has been unmistakeably symptomatic of our purposeless spiritual decline.

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1p Book Review: The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis

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There are countless overlooked books that deserve greater recognition – and many of them can be snapped up for a penny online. Here Nige recommends a classic novella…

Janet Loxley Lewis was the wife of the eminent critic Yvor Winters, and a considerable poet and novelist in her own right. The Wife of Martin Guerre (available for 1p from Amazon) is a novella published in 1941 that reimagines the intriguing case of a 16th-century Frenchman who disappeared for eight years, then reappeared and resumed his life (and his wife) – only this time, apparently, it was not the real Martin Guerre, but an impostor…

It’s the story told in the French film Le Retour de Martin Guerre and the American Civil War movie Sommersby, not to mention several musicals and stage shows. But nobody tells it like Janet Lewis. Her achievement, in a 90-page novella, is to create an entirely convincing medieval world – the world of a relatively wealthy Gascon peasant clan – and an entirely convincing medieval heroine in Martin Guerre’s wife, Bertrande de Rols.

Janet Lewis pulls off the great imaginative feat of making Bertrande at once wholly of her time, thoroughly alien in her medieval (essentially religious) way of thinking – into which no trace of modern sensibility obtrudes – and entirely sympathetic, so that by the time the story comes to its shattering conclusion we feel deeply for her, are fully involved in her impossible dilemma and her sad fate.

This plain tale plainly told in spare, lucid prose – precisely the kind of short fiction that is so easily overlooked and undervalued – works a subtle, special magic on the reader. Or it did on me – I think The Wife of Martin Guerre will haunt me for a long long time.

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